A blog for better streets and public spaces in Portland, Maine.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Want Zipcar?

Last night, Portland's League of Young Voters kicked off a campaign to get more involved in local issues in the city of Portland, with a focus on housing and transportation policies.

For both issues, League members zeroed in on our parking policies: Liz Trice brought up the point that the average parking space, which includes space to back out and maneuver around the lot, is about the size of a studio apartment. So current zoning, which requires two parking spaces per unit of housing, will effectively triple the price of an apartment. And naturally, these Stakhanovite parking production quotas incentivize car ownership and traffic congestion throughout the city and the region as a whole, in addition to making new housing construction for the middle class uneconomical.

One immediate solution could be a carsharing service like Zipcar. Shared cars allow anyone in the neighborhood who's paid an annual membership fee to reserve vehicles at an hourly rate: gas, maintenance, and insurance are all included. For most city-dwellers, carsharing is much more economical than owning a big-ticket depreciating asset like an automobile outright.

Presumably, if enough Portlanders enter their contact info on Zipcar's "notify me when carsharing comes to town" web page, they'll take notice and bring us some rides.

But Matti Gurney, who works for the Greater Portland Council of Governments, is keeping his own list to make a more formal petition to the nation's largest carsharing company. If you'd like it to be easier to live without a car in this town, send him an e-mail that says "Please add me to your carshare list. I live in Portland." Alec at the League would also like to be copied on your messages, so that he can keep track of our progress: alec@indyvoter.org.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Free rides on Friday

"Governor John E. Baldacci today announced efforts his Administration is taking to help Mainers cope with rising heating and transportation costs and to keep Maine people safe and warm this winter." - Nov. 16 press release

One of these efforts includes free rides on Maine's transit systems this Friday, including BAT in Bangor, METRO in Portland, ZOOM and Shuttlebus in Biddeford/Saco, and KV Transit in the Kennebec valley. The Governor's office hopes that these free rides will introduce people to transit and generate higher ridership during the rest of the week and past the conclusion of the free rides program six weeks from now.

A tip for the governor: not wasting hundreds of millions of dollars every year on outdated highway projects and building real, reliable, and convenient transit networks might be another good way to boost ridership, someday. You know, in case Mainers find themselves unable to afford $3 a gallon for gas, or in case we suddenly learn that our vehicles are causing irreversible harm to Maine's forest and ocean ecosystems. If these wacky sci-fi scenarios were ever to come to pass, it would be nice to have some sort of alternative, don't you think?

In the meantime, six days of free transit amounts to a few crumbs thrown to a starving citizenry... but we'll take it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

More piling on PACTS

Hey readers, have you followed Christian's advice and written to PACTS yet? I just did:

Dear Julia Dawson,

It has come to my attention that PACTS is taking public comment on its list of top project priorities for 2009. I can’t help but notice that the list is chock-full of highway projects. In fact, there are two separate points for widening I-295 alone. Only when the reader gets to the very bottom of the list does she or he see anything that has to do with providing more rail service in the area of PACTS jurisdiction.
To put it bluntly, these priorities are ridiculous. Here we are facing the prospect of severe climate change over the course of the next century and PACTS is proposing projects that will only encourage the pumping of more carbon into the atmosphere? Need I point out that widening 1-295 through Portland’s Bayside neighborhood conflicts with the Downeaster’s proposed right-of-way when that service is finally extended to Brunswick? The idea of widening that awful highway should laughed out of the room. (However, replacing the cloverleaf ramps with better designed diamond-shaped intersections with improved pedestrian and bicycle rights-of-ways should be a top priority.) Seriously, this list doesn’t exactly include a lot of choice for the teeming masses of commuters in Southern Maine who would much rather not have to drive their cars to and from work every single day. Perhaps you’ve already heard what Jon Graback of Portland has to say about that particular matter:

Several major national polls I have seen over the past few years basically say the same thing - people want less highway spending, but more for mass transit and other non-car alternatives. And by wide margins, people want more freight to shift from heavy trucks to rail.

So why the lack of choice in PACTS list of priorities? The last thing we want is to see our cities, towns, and countryside chopped to bits by superhighways even more than they already have been these past 50 years. It is high past time our transportation authorities stopped enabling sprawl, pollution, and the erosion of our neighborhoods by cars. It’s high past time we had more and better public transit options – not just in Maine but nationwide.
By more transit options, I speak not just of better bus and train service (though train service to Brunswick should be among your top priorities), we travelers also want to see more respect for pedestrians and bicyclists. For instance, the Veterans Memorial Bridge replacement must include separated pedestrian bike paths that connect to Danforth St., the Fore River Parkway path, the Clarks Pond trail network, and the Redbank/Brickhill neighborhoods. I also suggest you not move forward on the next stage of the Gorham Bypass until after you establish commuter bus service between Gorham Village and downtown Portland.
I implore PACTS to set its priorities straight and listen to We The People. We aren’t going anywhere, we vote for your employers, and we won’t leave you alone until you listen to us.

Cordially yours,

Patrick Banks
Concerned citizen and member of The League of Young Voters steering committee
Christian and I can't do this ourselves, so it's your turn to raise hell. Give PACTS a piece of your mind and don't let them get away with this monkey business. Again, all the contact info is here.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"The answer isn't freeways; the answer is MORE ways"

Update on the PACTS 2009 list of "high priority projects" (previously reported on here and here):

PACTS has so far received 14 unsolicited letters from the general public and from one City Councilor (Kevin Donoghue). PACTS staff collected the responses thus far and sent them back out to their committee members, commenters, and other interested parties. These 14 letters make for some pretty inspiring reading:

"Now is the time to think about alternatives to the tried and failed expansion of highways as a means for alleviating traffic pressure." - Derek Pelletier, Portland

"We all like to think we are a forward-thinking community -- and PACTS exists to be forward-thinking for this region. Please make the 2009 transportation priorities reflect our true needs." - Sarah Cushman, Portland

"I would like to be able to find a bicycle route to take me home which allows me to stop at one of the shops or restaurants on the peninsula without having to make a huge detour, ride an unsafe route, or ride illegally, which are my only options right now." - Mark Sauerwald, Cumberland

"The best way to improve our transportation system for all users, drivers included, is to give as many people as possible the option not to drive." - Erik Osborn, Portland

"[Alternative modes] are time-tested, effective - not to mention social, community-minded, and ecological - alternatives to bigger highways. Why not be leaders and do something great? The answer isn't freeways; the answer is MORE ways." - Amy Chamberlain, Bath

We also received this reaction from Jon Graback of Portland on the Bike/Ped Committee's e-mail list. Jon was one of the 14 commenters:

Not one of the 14 public comments supports PACTS high-priority ranking of several major highway projects - not one! I was surprised at the unanimity of the comments. There must be someone out there who still wants to see new highway projects built to alleviate traffic congestion, but if there is, they didn't bother to submit a comment to PACTS. Several major national polls I have seen over the past few years basically say the same thing - people want less highway spending, but more for mass transit and other non-car alternatives. And by wide margins, people want more freight to shift from heavy trucks to rail.

PACTS and MDOT are currently caught in a squeeze between limited availability of funding for very expensive new highway projects that apparently hardly anybody wants, and almost no funding for new mass-transit, bikeway and pedestrian projects that almost everybody wants! In this new era of exorbitant energy prices, global warming, and highway gridlock, it is apparent that Federal and State funding priorities have fallen behind what the majority of the public wants and needs. The oil, automobile and trucking industries still maintain a chokehold on the federal government (and some state governments like New Hampshire), but their vice-like grip is starting to slip in the face of widespread public defection.

If you haven't written a letter of your own, yet, there's still time to join the revolt: PACTS won't meet to reconsider this list for another week. Check this previous post for talking points and contact information.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

We have a representative government!

"At a certain point, you have representative government and you live with that."
-Jim Clouter (quoted in the Bollard)

Back when former Councilor Jim Cloutier spoke these words in July, he uttered them with the characteristic arrogance of an authority figure who thinks he knows better than everyone else. At the time, Cloutier was in the middle of engineering the Maine State Pier logjam, one of the most spectacular failures of leadership this City has seen in some time. Now, the day after Election Day, Cloutier has been relieved of his public service duties, and these words take on a much more eloquent, patriotic tone, don't you think?

With Cloutier out of the way, the Maine State Pier process has a chance to move forward, and in a direction that won't induce vomiting.

The new Council seems likely to break the previous deadlock by endorsing Olympia Properties as a partner in redevelopment. Instead of letting Olympia go ahead and build their proposal, though, the Council's newer members will probably endorse a series of public charrettes to determine what Portland citizens really want to have on their Pier.

By selecting a development partner, the City will be agreeing that private development should pay for the Pier's infrastructure, including the construction of the megaberth cruise ship terminal further east. Portlanders may say "no" to a five star hotel, but ultimately, Olympia is going to need to make a profit to make this project worthwhile for them.

This means that the Pier will NOT turn into a wide-open, grassy dog toilet like the Eastern Prom, no matter how much people scream for "open space." It will have to host some productive built space to pay taxes, pay Olympia, and pay for the infrastructural investments that our working waterfront needs.

Incidentally, the Maine State Pier, or any of the upper level offices on Portland's working waterfront, would be a wet-dream workplace for any number of innovative, mobile tech companies or individuals. Didn't IDEXX start out in this neighborhood before its remarkable growth forced it to seek more space in Westbrook? An adaptive reuse of the existing Pier warehouse could preserve some space for marine industrial uses while also accommodating flexible office or light industrial space to incubate new, growing businesses in our city.

Or it could be another place for people my age to work for low wages and no benefits in the service of rich people. It's up to us, now.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Breaking News for Streets Geeks

I just spoke with City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who tells me that Portland will retain the consulting firm Nelson\Nygaard for the Peninsula Mobility Study.

This plan, which will hopefully correct the gross inadequacies and failures of last year's auto-focused "Peninsula Traffic Plan," will begin to take shape this winter, possibly as soon as December.

The articles section of Nelson\Nygaard's website has a few items on liberalizing socialized parking systems, and one of their "featured projects" is a transportation master plan for Trenton, NJ (a city roughly the same size as Portland).

I've been nominated to be the second district representative to the study's advisory taskforce, and I'll plan to share all that I can on this blog as we proceed.